Warning: This Post is Not About the Interesting Stuff

My Harvard colleague Larry Bouthillier commented on my previous post, which discussed the corporate Facebook application WorkBook recently released by WorkLight.

"Facebook integration like this is less scary than it may look at first glance.  At the risk of getting a little too geeky wink, let me explain. 

Facebook allows application developers to create their own apps that live inside an “iframe” within the Facebook site.  Whatever a company does within that iframed space is entirely their own secure environment, and can even have its own intranet login process just like the company portal.

For example, in the application my team built for Harvard students to see and interact with their course schedules and classmates in Facebook, that application uses the standard Harvard intranet login process, runs on a secure (SSL/https) connection, interacts securely with the Harvard directory services (LDAP) and email services, and Facebook never sees any Harvard-specific data about the users whatsoever. 

So, our app looks like Facebook’s screens—same styles, same way to display lists of people, same Facebook photos of users.  But it’s all generated by us to look that way. 

I suspect that WorkBook does something similar. The application does not live *inside* Facebook, it just appears that way.  It just happens to sit inside a Facebook iframe, and uses a few handy conveniences Facebook makes available (such as access to Facebook photos, friend lists, and messaging).

Ultimately, it can be as secure (or insecure) as any other intranet application. "

Larry’s explanation is extremely helpful and illuminating. It also brings up two larger points that deserve emphasis. First is the distinction between technology deployments that are advanced and those that are powerful. As Larry points out, WorkBook is not terribly advanced; it’s not near the cutting edge of what can be done with Web applications, or any other aspect of IT. 

For some, this makes it uninteresting. Lots of people who study technology are perennially attracted to that cutting edge: the fastest chip, the most complex algorithm, the largest cloud or grid of interlinked computers, the biggest simulation, the coolest use of AJAX, etc. These advances are often important and always newsworthy.

But from the perspective of an executive trying to run and improve a company, are they the most powerful ones? Put another way, how many pressing business problems can only be solved by the application of cutting edge computing? There are some such problems, to be sure, but my guess is that they’re confined to small parts of relatively few companies in a small number of industries. Most of the jobs, business processes, and organizations I know well wouldn’t benefit tremendously if all their computers suddenly became twice as fast. They’d gain a lot more from basic data standardization, systems integration, workflow, or social networking. 

Let’s make this more concrete with a thought experiment. From which technology deployment would Merck benefit more: Facebook and WorkBook to all employees, or the most sophisticated hardware and software for drug discovery across all its labs? I don’t raise this question to dismiss it as a no-brainer — a good argument could be made for either choice. 

But my money’s on the unsophisticated digital social glue. I think it’s telling that despite the huge amounts of money pharma and biotech companies have poured into advanced computing in recent years, big pharma’s drug pipeline is in the worst shape in recent memory. As James Surowiecki points out in a recent New Yorker column, "The number of “new molecular entities”—drugs not yet introduced in the United States in any form—approved annually by the F.D.A. has fallen by sixty per cent since 1996, and new drug applications have dropped nearly forty per cent." It’s naive to think that Enterprise 2.0 tools and approaches alone will open up the floodgates —  Surowiecki states that" ‘diseconomies’ of scale: inertia, bureaucracy, risk aversion, clock-watching, [and] office politics" are the major factors drying up the pipeline — but I think these simple but powerful technologies would have a larger impact than all the new workstations money can buy. Do you agree?

The second point arising from Larry’s comment is the ever-increasing ease of integrating applications and data. There are many labels associated with this trend, including ‘mashups,’ ‘Service-Oriented Architecture,’ ‘Web Services,’ etc., but they’re all describing the same happy process: the fact that it’s getting easier and faster over time to combine two or more formerly separate systems to yield something valuable. 

I was talking the other day John Bruce and Eric Shurr of the enterprise social media company Awareness Networks (I have no financial interest of any kind in Awareness, and have had no commercial dealings with the company). They said that it now takes Awareness a matter of weeks to fully deploy their hosted platform at a customer, and to integrate it with whatever security and authentication infrastructure is already in place. I asked them how long it would have taken them to do the same work five or six years ago. John, who worked extensively in security before joining Awareness, told me it would have required several months. 

Some foresee that the day will soon come when it’s so easy to integrate systems that the systems will do it themselves. This is part of some visions of the ‘Semantic Web.’ I have grave doubts that this will ever happen outside labs and other tightly controlled environments, but that’s a topic for another post. For now, it suffices to highlight and applaud the fact that it’s getting much easier to get computers to talk to each other. As the examples of WorkBook and the scads of other Facebook applications show, this delivers benefits to all of us IT consumers.